The Magazine

Ehud Olmert's Israel

It's doing better than you've heard.

Feb 4, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 20 • By PETER BERKOWITZ
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Moreover, from his government's failures and mistakes, "lessons were learned, shortcomings were rectified, patterns of action were changed." Meanwhile, the quiet in northern Israel, contended Olmert, reflects the reestablishment of deterrence, central to Israel's national security doctrine.

Concerning the war in the south, the prime minister stressed his full approval of Defense Minister Ehud Barak's decision to impose a partial blockade on Gaza. While Israel would not allow "a humanitarian crisis to develop," it would also not continue to supply all the energy Hamas needed to run a terrorist state:

We will not stop food for children, medicine for those in need nor fuel for institutions tied to saving lives. However, there is no justification or basis to demand that we allow the residents of Gaza to live normal lives, while mortars are fired and missiles are launched from their streets and the courtyards of their homes towards Sderot and the communities in the South.

Israel, Olmert declared, would not relent in the fight against Hamas, either in Gaza or in the West Bank.

But at the core of Olmert's speech was a commitment to the process the Bush administration launched at Annapolis. Despite the serious objections and genuine risks, there was, Olmert argued, no contradiction in taking advantage of a "historic opportunity"--consisting in the "deserving Palestinian leadership" of President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, "a sympathetic international community," and "an American president committed to the security of Israel and the unmistakable Jewish character of the country, at a level which is unprecedented in our history"--to achieve a political agreement with the Palestinians.

Many Israelis--and not a few well-informed Americans--believe that Olmert is engaged in a fool's errand. Supplementing the general consensus concerning the shape of a just solution to the conflict is a consensus among Israelis that the conditions for implementing that solution do not now exist and are not likely to come into being anytime soon. Despite the intentions of Abbas and Fayyad, Fatah is too corrupt, the Palestinian educational system is too poisonous, Jerusalem too sensitive an issue, and Hamas too appealing to too many Palestinians. Most important, any political agreement would require the Israeli army and internal security forces to leave the West Bank, but few in Israel believe that can be done without paying an intolerable price--exposing Tel Aviv and environs, the center of the country's commercial life and home to half its citizens, to constant rocket attacks.

The unlikeliness of a political agreement with the Palestinians is to be regretted, but by no means is it cause for despair. Chastened by 40 years of occupation and committed to a two-state solution the moment circumstances permit, a significant majority of Israelis are more than ready to turn their back on the Palestinians, to continue to orient their economy globally, and to contain the Palestinians without solving the conflict that divides them. This builds on the consensus forged by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in the wake of the Second Intifada.

The evolving consensus includes both the repudiation by an important segment of the Israeli right of the dream of an Israel that stretches from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River, and the repudiation by significant segments of the left of the conviction that Israel is at fault for all the pathologies of Palestinian society and could correct them, if only its heart were in the right place.

Because it faces up to harsh realities without losing sight of the demands of justice, the evolving consensus reflects the strength of the nation.

Peter Berkowitz is the Tad and Dianne Taube senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and a visiting professor at Georgetown University.